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Joel, Alex, and me.

Highschool graduation

June 1, 1991. Alice has driven down from Madison for the weekend, accompanied by her cats, and after breakfast we go down to the open house Maureen and Harold are having for Joel's graduation. Table full of hors d'oeuvres, catered by the Cottage, with three mylar balloons in the middle saying "Congratulations graduate." Joel and a few of his friends are there, but it's mostly adults of one sort or another -- mostly Harold's relatives. But also Betty and Leo and Maureen's aunt Kay, whom I haven't seen since Maureen and I (on our way across the country in our Econoline van) stopped in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a visit twentyone years ago and who gives me a big warm hug. Melanie and her mother, June, stop by with Pieta --Melanie, whom I've always adored, looking, as always, achingly lovely.

Pieta and Joel.

      Pieta and Joel at Maureen's party.
      The next day Greg and Sara had a party for Pieta, and I went over to that one too so I could torture myself some more about time's swift flight. Joel and Maureen had been there and gone already (they were going up to Dubuque to spend the evening on the new gambling riverboat), but Greg and his friends (including Beau Salisbury, whom we'd known since daycare days) were making wonderful music, and I couldn't drag myself away. .I sat next to Melanie's mother, June, while Melanie and Pieta and Pieta's friend Rachel (Dave Moore's daughter, whom I didn't recognize -- fifteen or sixteen now, and I hadn't seen her since she was five or six) danced in the narrow livingroom next to the table of hors-d'oeuvres.
      The music was so fine. I sat there feeling a great longing -- wanting to be one of these music-making people. Wanting to be part of that great communion of song. There was so much life among those people.
      Want to see Pieta at two? Joel and Pieta at eight?

Sukie Kim (want to see a photo of Maureen and Sukie?) stops by, and so does Diana Luke, Joel's wonderful, giving piano teacher. Later Ceasura's mother, Judythe, whom I've never met before, arrives, and I'm astonished that she looks so young -- apparently in her twenties. But Maureen says "No, she's fortytwo. I know she looks young. I hate her!" Judythe is fast-talking and dynamic. Her hair sticks up straight, held up by mousse. She talks about her job -- she's working as an ECG technician at the veterans' hospital -- and about how difficult it is to meet men.

I am pretty much in the trance I generally get into at social gatherings, and this one seems a little stranger than most. I'm the father here, but since I've had nothing to do with getting all this celebration together I feel extraneous. As I watch Joel opening his cards and presents I feel as though I'm at a bar mitzvah -- people giving presents, mostly gifts of money, to the new graduate. We never did things like this when I was growing up.

Diana Luke, Joel's piano teacher, telling Joel she hopes he won't stop playing the piano. She and her husband and kids were about to leave Iowa City for a military stint in Germany, and the following day there was a combination going-away party and baby shower for her at the Preucil School. I went there after stopping by Greg and Sara's party with a copy of Pat the Bunny for the child she was expecting. Afterwards I went home and felt lost and forlorn. It seemed as though my fathering years were over, and they left a hole in my life.

Diana Luke, Tom, Joel.

From a letter to Maria Bona:
The graduation ceremony that night, at Hancher auditorium. All the graduates were in red rayon caps and gowns. I should have thought to get there early, but I wasn't thinking, and got to Hancher around quarter to eight, and by then the only spaces available were way up at the top of the balcony. At the openhouse in the morning somebody said how sad it would be, how sad we would feel, how sad it always was no matter how much you thought you were prepared for it, the Elgar Pomp and Circumstance march. And you know that in general I get sad at the drop of a hat. But we were so far away that I was too busy squinting to feel sad. It was like watching the ceremonies on a small- screen television. Presumably the graduates marched up the center aisles of Hancher, but they didn't enter my field of vision till they got to the stage. "Is that Joel? That looks sort of like Joel, doesn't it?" "I don't know," Alice said, "I think he was going to be wearing black pants, wasn't he? And it's in alphabetical order, isn't it, so it wouldn't be him yet."
      Orion, Joel, Unity.

Orion, Joel, and Unity after Joel and Orion's graduation. Close friends ever since daycare.

     

They marched onto the stage from both sides and sat in seats on the stage. I didn't recognize anybody. Then all the students on the stage turned their folding chairs around and faced the rear and the lights went down and there was a slide show with musical accompaniment, various rock songs piped in and so on. I got the idea that the slide show was going to show every member of the class of ninetyone at least once, but from where I sat I couldn't recognize any of them. The loudest cheers and whoops seemed to come when certain longhaired guys appeared on the screen. A few flashes in the darkness as people tried to take photos of the slides on the screen -- which of course the flashes would obliterate and render totally white. Not a single face did I recognize, but there was a general feeling of living in the time of Homo audiovisualensis. The people in the slides seemed formed by images they had seen in the media. By ads saying, "Guys, it doesn't get any better than this," and so on. After a few hundred slides the lights came back up and the graduates turned their folding chairs around and the president of the class, Jamie Schweser, got up to present the speaker. I had never heard of Jamie Schweser, but at the openhouse that morning Joel said that at the prom Jamie (this is a male we're talking about) dressed in a formal gown and his date came in a tuxedo. Most of his introduction of the speaker was a reading of "The Giving Tree," by Shel Silverstein. I've seen it before, but when I heard it read out loud, in these circumstances -- all these young people taking one more step outward in the tiny, brief journey of existence -- it seemed like the finest and truest piece of writing I had ever heard. Tears ran down under my glasses. I wished that I could write something as good and moving and true as that little fable. Then there was a talk by a social studies instructor whom Joel really liked, Dale Hibbs, who has evidently been a member of the Iowa legislature and also apparently used to be a member of a motorcycle gang. A guy who tells his classes "Let's rumble," and whose grade-point average at his own highschool graduation was one point eight. . . . And then the parade of people in red gowns across the stage, being given handshakes and diplomas. . . . And then that is it, and it feels as though there ought to be something more, a big drunken party with all the parents and all the graduates. I hung around for a few more minutes while Harold took photos of Joel with his grandparents, with his aunt, with Alex, with Maureen, with me, and so on (and through everything it is as though I am elsewhere, not quite there, not quite participating -- floating above the crowd in an out-of-body experience or something), and then went home with Alice.

Joel, Alex, me.

Tom with Joel and Alex after the ceremonies. Yes, there are tears in all these human rituals of ours. We come together so briefly. We are apart so long.

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      Joel in 1985-1986
      Joel and Tommy in Canadian Rockies
      City High graduation
      Joel and Unity in Yosemite
      Joel at Rocky Ridge, 1995
      Joel at Año Nuevo, 1995
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Copyright 1999 T. N. R. Rogers. All rights reserved. Last revised 18 aug 99.